It’s too easy to say that the 1 percent has recently been winning the class war in the United States because it is more powerful, with its control of the mass media, ownership of the major parties and command of the means of repression. In the Global Nonviolent Action Database there are plenty of cases in which the 1 percent has all those things and is nevertheless pushed back by people power and smart strategy. In fact, even in the United States, the 1 percent has lost some recent battles.
We Americans often fail to notice the 1 percent’s strategy game. Knowing some of the favorite moves they make to achieve their goals will assist us as we stand up for justice, equality and life itself.
Divide and conquer
New York State has had a moratorium on fracking for natural gas in its part of the giant Marcellus Shale deposit. In 2010, oil companies paid for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s election in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania; Corbett then made sure to minimize taxes on fracking in his state’s Marcellus Shale.
However, Pennsylvanians’ concern about the negative effects of fracking has grown since 2010, along with the growing concern about underfunded public schools. Politically, there was a natural overlap of the two constituencies — care for health and care for children. Faced with this problem in 2014, major Democratic candidates for governor chose to divide and conquer. They promised to increase tax on the oil companies and use that money for education, thus splitting a potential coalition to gain a moratorium on fracking.
Something similar is happening with Amtrak. A few weeks ago, Congress finally laid the groundwork for the demise of the national passenger train system and the capture of its most profitable routes for the 1 percent. Amtrak is a public good, ever more desperately needed in a country whose carbon emissions are out of control. Passenger rail is, of course, heavily subsidized by taxes, the most sensible way to provide many public goods.
To simplify a complicated story, the 1 percent’s previous attempt to destroy Amtrak failed because the rail system was defended by a broad coalition of senators, including those from Midwestern and Western states that needed Amtrak even though their states’ small populations meant very heavy subsidies.
Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — which covers Boston to Washington, D.C. — generates surplus income because of high passenger loads. Having analyzed the 1 percent’s earlier loss, the new strategy is apparently to divide the Senate pro-Amtrak coalition by promising the Northeast Corridor the chance to keep more of its surplus for itself. That will lessen the money available for the Western states. Service outside the Northeast Corridor will decline while infrastructure improvements in the Northeast will be pumped up. The result: a split in the coalition that kept Amtrak alive.
As the coalition falls apart, most of Amtrak can be dumped and the valuable Northeast Corridor can be saved for re-privatization. Clever.
Running down public services
The 1 percent’s wish to turn school taxes into private profit has been apparent for quite a while. It could only be done around the edges as long as people were basically satisfied with the public school system. The 1 percent’s school voucher campaign failed despite the appeal to the fundamental American value of freedom of choice.
The 1 percent increased its strategy of de-funding pubic schools and supported a “school reform movement” that attacked public school teachers and used testing as a stick. The project was branded as Leave No Child Behind. The combination was effective for running schools down. For example, studies show that one of the better predictors of educational achievement is class size — the smaller, the better — so the defunding strategy forced the increase of class size, then attacked the teachers for underperforming. Soon, teachers were paying for pencils and supplies for the students; many teachers proved to be heroes, but the system as a whole was predictably stressed out.
Enter: charter schools. Nationally, we now have enough research on charter schools to know that, on the whole, they are no improvement. A recent Stanford study joins others that show no conclusive evidence that charters are better. But charters don’t need to be better, because the defunding-plus-blaming strategy is working among desperate working class parents who want to flee run-down public schools in the hope that charters are better. That’s great if you don’t care about working and middle class education, and believe the unions won’t go on the offensive and rally the community against your strategy.
Ignore people power
For the first half of Earth Quaker Action Team’s successful five-year campaign to end PNC Bank’s support of mountaintop removal coal mining, bank officials ignored us. Journalists told us they were frustrated that when they covered our story they received only “No comment” from PNC’s public relations officers in Pittsburgh.
In Colorado, a new right-wing campaign seeks to expunge from the schools any history or description of civil disobedience and radical dissent. Presumably Thoreau, the Underground Railroad and Martin Luther King are to be shown the school exit.
Actually, as “A People’s History” author Howard Zinn and the Global Nonviolent Action Database have shown, the 1 percent’s influence in academe already screened out most of the people’s heritage of their own nonviolent campaigns, hiding them from college students who, frighteningly enough, might put that legacy to use. At Swarthmore College, most of the students who worked on the database, arguably among the best-educated in the country, told me that Swarthmore taught them the concept for the first time in their educational experience. Mainstream academics slather their students with military history, strategy, and view of the world; that is a study consistent with the values of the Masters of the Universe.
The recent furor over the movie Selma’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the voting rights act was itself instructive: a phalanx of Democrats resisted the view that the people were primarily responsible for that victory. Years ago Hilary Clinton said publicly that it was President Johnson who was the prime mover. This is consistent with the 1 percent-financed Democrats, who interact with social movements to co-opt them and wean them away from the strength of self-reliant nonviolent power.
Judging from the 1 percent’s strategy of ignoring, discouraging, and disparaging nonviolent action, the elite apparently respects nonviolent power more than some activists on the left.
Naomi Klein is right
In her book “This Changes Everything,” Klein argues that the climate crisis presents a tremendous opportunity for the people who have been on the losing side of the class war. I agree. Even when the 1 percent in the United States was at the height of its power, George W. Bush was blocked when he tried to give Social Security to Wall Street, and his over-extension of U.S. military power in Iraq was a disaster for his empire. The Washington gridlock of the two parties owned by the economic elite reveals a 1 percent losing its grip. We the people are very wrong if we believe that they are all-powerful.
We can organize alliances among constituencies that up until now have been easily divided. Waging Nonviolence blogger Kate Aronoff recently wrote about a blue-green alliance that is paying off. It takes good organizing, yes, and smart strategizing that emphasizes the big picture. It also borrows a page from the 1 percent’s playbook of being willing to play the long game, as they do with Amtrak and public schools.
As volatility increases and institutional legitimacy falls, our movements can grow more rapidly. That’s all the more reason to get smarter strategically and counter the opponent’s favorite moves, including divide and conquer, running down public services, and trying to delete the existence of people power.
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